In First Opinion Addressing a Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment, the Third District Upholds the City of Sacramento’s Approval of an Infill Project

In Sacramentans for Fair Planning v. City of Sacramento (2019) ___Cal.App.5th___, the Third District Court of Appeal upheld the City of Sacramento’s reliance on a Sustainable Communities Environmental Assessment (SCEA), a relatively new method for conducting streamlined CEQA review for certain projects that help the state meet its greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction targets. (See Pub. Resources Code, § 21155.2, subd. (b).) The decision is the first published opinion addressing the propriety of an SCEA. The court held that the transit priority project at issue was consistent with the region’s sustainable communities strategy and therefore the City’s reliance on the SCEA complied with CEQA.

The court also upheld the City’s reliance on a unique provision in its general plan that allows the City to approve projects that are inconsistent with the City height and density limits if the projects offer significant community benefits.

Background

The Sustainable Communities and Climate Protection Act (SB 375) was created to integrate transportation and land use planning to reduce GHG emissions. SB 375 directed the California Air Resources Board to develop regional targets for automobiles and light trucks to reduce emissions. In turn, federally designated metropolitan planning organizations (MPOs) must now include a “sustainable communities strategy” (SCS) in their regional transportation plans/ metropolitan transportation plan (MTP). (Gov. Code, § 65080, subd. (b)(2)(B).) MTP/SCSs direct the location and intensity of future land use developments on a regional scale to reduce vehicle emissions. The Sacramento Area Council of Governments (SACOG) is the MPO for the Sacramento area. SACOG adopted an MTP/SCS for the region in 2012 and certified an EIR for the MTP/SCS at that time.

Under SB 375, the mandated reductions may be achieved through a variety of methods, including “smart growth planning.” The Legislature determined that one type of development that can help reduce vehicular GHG emissions is a “transit priority project.” This type of project contains at least 50% residential use, has a minimum density of 20 units per acre, and is located within one-half mile of a major transit stop.

To boost development of transit priority projects, SB 375 allows for streamlined CEQA review through an SCEA if the project: (1) is consistent with the general use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies specified for the project area’ in the strategy; and (2) incorporates all feasible mitigation measures, performance standards, and criteria set forth in the prior applicable environmental impact reports’ and which were adopted as findings. (Pub. Resources Code, §§ 21155, subd. (a), 21155.2, subds. (a), (b).)

The “Yamanee” project at issue in Sacramentans is a proposed 15-story multi-use building made up of one floor of commercial space, three levels of parking, residential condominiums on 10 floors, and one floor of residential amenities. The building is proposed to be located near public transit in Sacramento’s growing “Midtown” area, adjacent to the City’s downtown. The project is located in the MTP/SCS’s central city subarea of a “Center and Corridor Community.” Under the MTP/SCS, Center and Corridor Communities are typically higher density and more mixed than surrounding land uses. SAGOG organized the MTP/SCS in such a way that policies for reducing GHG emissions were embedded in the MTP/SCS’s growth forecast assumptions. Thus, projects that are consistent with the MTP/SCS’s growth forecasts are automatically consistent with the MTP/SCS’s emission-reduction policies.

The City determined that the Yamanee project qualified as a transit priority project and that the project was consistent with the general land use designation, density, building intensity, and applicable policies in the MTP/SCS. Therefore, the City used an SCEA to review the project under CEQA. The SCEA explained that, as a transit priority project, the Yamanee project would increase housing options near high quality transit and reduce vehicle miles traveled. It also explained that the project is consistent with the MTP/SCS’s forecast of low to high-density residential and mixed uses in the center subarea of the Center and Corridor Community.

The City Council upheld the City planning and design commission’s approval of the project and rejected the petitioner’s appeal of that decision. The petitioner sought a writ of mandate in the superior court, claiming that the City’s approval of the project violated CEQA and the planning and zoning law. The superior court denied the petition and the Court of Appeal affirmed.

CEQA

The Court of Appeal rejected the petitioner’s claim that the City erred by relying on SACOG’s MTP/SCS to justify using an SCEA. The petitioner argued that because the MTP/SCS lacked specific density and building intensity standards, the City could not rely on it as a basis for an SCEA. Further, claimed the petitioner, the MTP/SCS undermines the City’s general plan because it treats the City’s center as “higher density,” whereas the general plan sets forth a more nuanced approach under which building intensities and densities increase the closer a development gets to the downtown. These arguments, concluded the court, were premised on a misunderstanding of the MTP/SCS’s role. An MTP/SCS does not regulate land use. The purpose of an MTP/SCS is to establish a regional development pattern, not site-specific zoning. SB 375 authorized the City to review the project in an SCEA if the project was consistent with the regional strategy. Because it was, the city was allowed to rely on an SCEA. Although, as the petitioner contended, reliance on an SCEA could mean that certain projects receive less environmental review than traditionally required under CEQA, the court advised that the petitioner should take this concern to the Legislature, not the courts.

The court also rejected the petitioner’s claim that the City erred by relying on previous EIRs for the general plan and MTP/SCS to avoid analyzing the project’s cumulative impacts. In particular, the petitioner claimed that streamlined review was inappropriate in this case because no prior environmental analysis had considered the cumulative impacts of high-rise development in Sacramento’s midtown. The court explained that CEQA required the City to prepare an initial study (IS) before drafting the SCEA. The City’s IS for the project concluded that cumulative effects had, in fact, been adequately addressed and mitigated, and therefore did not need to be analyzed further in the SCEA. Additionally, the project included all applicable mitigation measures recommended in the prior EIRs. The petitioner failed to show that the City’s analysis was not factually supported. Accordingly, the City did not err by relying on prior cumulative impact analyses.

Planning and Zoning Law

The development proposed by the project is denser and more intense than what would ordinarily be allowed under the City’s general plan and zoning code. The City approved the project, however, under a provision in its general plan that allows the City to approve more intensive development when a project’s “significant community benefits” outweigh strict adherence to the density and intensity requirements. The City determined that the project would have several significant community benefits, including helping the City to achieve its goal of building 10,000 new residential units in the central city by 2025, and reducing dependency on personal vehicles. These, and other benefits, outweighed strict adherence to the City’s density and intensity limits.

The petitioner argued that the City’s decision to allow the Project to exceed the general plan and zoning code’s intensity and density standards constituted unlawful “spot zoning.” The court explained that spot zoning occurs where a small parcel is restricted and given fewer rights than the surrounding property (e.g., when a lot is restricted to residential uses even though it is surrounded by exclusively commercial uses). This case, explained the court, is not a spot-zoning case in that the property was not given lesser development rights than its neighboring parcels. The petitioner argued that the neighboring parcels had, in fact, been given lesser development rights through the City’s approval of the project, but there was no evidence in the record that any neighboring owner sought and was denied permission to develop at a greater intensity or that the City would arbitrarily refuse to consider an application for such development.

The petitioner also argued that the phrase “significant community benefit” as used in the City’s general plan was unconstitutionally vague. The court disagreed, explaining that zoning standards in California are required to be made “‘in accord with the general health, safety, and welfare standard,’” and that the phrase “significant community benefit” was no less vague than the phrase “general welfare.” Additionally, held the court, the phrase “significant community benefit” provides sufficient direction to implement the policy in accordance with the general plan.

The court also held that the City had articulated a rational basis for the policy allowing the City to waive the density and intensity standards for projects that provide significant community benefits, which is all that the Constitution required.

Conclusion

In this case, the City of Sacramento successfully employed CEQA’s streamlined provisions for transit priority projects to expedite and simplify its environmental review of an infill project that will help the City meet its aggressive new housing goal and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The City’s general plan allowed the City to approve the project because the project would provide significant public benefits, even though the project is inconsistent with the general plan and zoning code’s density and intensity standards. As California continues to combat the dual threats of a housing shortage and climate change, cities and counties are likely to increasingly rely on streamlined approaches to the approval process for mixed-use projects near public transit.